How John Lewis Communicates Its Strategy With a One-Two Punch

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Sam Bleazard is Senior Manager, Internal Communications at John Lewis. Here he reveals his two-pronged approach to delivering big strategic messages…

John Lewis is a unique company. I joined the business ten months ago, at what was avery challenging point for John Lewis and retail as a whole. We were still very much in the grip of a challenging economy, with the business’ new three-to-five year strategy to be rolled out.

I had a big remit on joining. Initially, I had responsibility for preparing the communication of the new strategy to the business’ top 100 leaders. That launch led to a series of roadshows around the country in every single shop with a member of the management board in tow, to inspire our 5,000 managers to subsequently inspire the rest of the business.

The Partnership model

John Lewis is a different kind of company, so before you can understand the strategy you have to understand our unique Partnership model. Our employees are called Partners, and everyone gets the same percentage bonus every year no matter what level they work at. Here, people feel like they own the business and we want to encourage them to own the strategy – and their role in it – as well. Previous strategies had been shared face-to-face, and while these events were clearly worthwhile exercises, they were by no means perfect.

When thinking about the most effective way to communicate our strategy, we wanted to create a balance of cost effectiveness while not compromising the communication or our commitment to it in terms of production and creativity. Less was definitely more, and we tried to instil that confidence in the leadership team, because it was a lot for our Partners to try and absorb.

There before, there after

To deliver the new strategy, we came up with a two-phase approach. Rather than placing massive emphasis on conducting  a presentation over one long day in a shop and trying to do everything in one go, I pulled together and chaired a working party which came up with the idea of holding a ‘roadshow session’ a week before the main event to ‘preview’ the strategy.

At each event, we discussed what had happened in the three years since the last strategy – for example, how technology has impacted customer behaviour, the evolving role of a retailer, and the changing nature of the high street. Why did we get people thinking about all these things? Because it was important they felt involved before we arrived with a board member, video and slides.

The pre-discussion is about making them feel involved. It’s about making them feel like they own that strategy in some way. I’m not just going to turn up to your office once every 3 years and land this thing on you. “Hello, goodbye, you’ll hear from me again in another 3 years.”

That’s not involving people. What is involving people is saying: “I trust you and your teams to talk about this whole area a week to 10 days before I even turn up. And then when I turn up we are going to talk about, we are going to discuss it, we will try to make it interactive. And when I leave, I am going to create a platform that gives you direct access to the most senior people in the company. We’ll do it in a controlled way, but we’ll allow an adult discussion. Not a parent-child discussion, but a very adult discussion on these topics.” That feels to me like a good balance.

This formula – a pre-discussion followed up with some kind of post-event feedback mechanism – is so vital wen you’re launching a new strategy. You have to warm people up before it comes, and you have to give them a way to follow-up after the event. A lot of companies, when they have a big piece of strategic communication, they’ll only use one form of communication – like a company-wide email or a one-off event. It gets pumped out, and from a leadership point of view there’s an attitude of: “Job done. Box ticked.” But it’s dangerous because of course it’s never as simple as that. Everyone’s incredibly busy and you’re fighting for a piece of people’s time.

Live exec chats

On four occasions after the events we created and ran live, realtime webchats via a pre-planned moderated event which gave our Partners the chance to question members of the Management Board. That was incredible and ground-breaking – I’ve wanted to do stuff like that in previous jobs…and we got all kinds of questions such as “how are we are going to achieve a stretching target such as X? At what point do we think we are going to be break even on this project?” etc.

There were plenty of inquisitive, detailed questions on a whole range of topics. It was absolutely fascinating. There was also another positive offshoot that we didn’t expect. We knew that individual named users would sign on to the webchat, however, in shops groups of people were getting together round a big screen in meeting rooms and logging on generically as the shop name e.g. JL Trafford in Manchester. What was fascinating about these unexpected gatherings was that it created the feel of an online event and more importantly created a sense of community – allowing the safety of a team contribution, that wasn’t planned or pre-subscribed. Those users also posted a photo of themselves participating in the live chat for everyone else to see.

20 or 30 people would be together watching the live chat feed rolling up on screen, firing questions at one person sat behind a laptop, who would post on their behalf. We didn’t ask them to do that – all this they did off their own back – so how that evolved is fascinating.”

Staying on top

Part of the new John Lewis strategy is reemphasising how important the trust is that we’ve built up with our customers and how we maintain the quality, price and service that we’re offering that we’re famous for. It’s crucial because it’s a very tough and competitive market. The only way we can ensure we provide great products and unrivalled service is to ensure that we leave nobody behind. ■

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